Moving the needle on care for the disabled

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AURORA | Dozens of tiny, turquoise needles are placed along the length of Stefan Moton’s spine as he lays face down on a massage chair in a serene brick room in suburban Lakewood.

“It helps me relax and not spasm so much,” says the 22-year-old, who was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

Thanks to acupuncture and massage therapy provided through a program offered by the nonprofit Chanda Plan Foundation, for the past two years Moton has been able to receive acupuncture as well as massage therapy once a week at no cost.

“After acupuncture, I get the feeling in my arm back,” he says. “If I don’t go, my body stiffens up and feels really achy.”

Stephen Corsale, an acupuncturist with a private practice in Boulder who works for the Foundation two days a week, says the purpose of the therapy is to help patients get back sensory, if not all motor function.

“Most of the main nerve pathways come up through the spinal cord, but there is parallel electrical circuitry throughout the body,” says Corsale, who has been doing treatments with Moton for the past two years. “There are other connections we can sometimes make to other parts of the body, which is exciting.”

Moton says even though he can’t always feel the needles, he experiences an overall calming effect, both mentally and physically. He says that since starting the treatment, he has felt less anxiety. He says acupuncture has also reduced the number of spasms he experiences throughout his body, which can be painful and even make him nauseous.

Without the treatment, Moton says, he would likely have to use medication to deal with the neuropathic pain resulting from the nerve damage throughout his body.

Moton’s Medicaid does not yet cover the treatments, so the foundation uses philanthropic funding to provide Moton with integrative therapies such as massage and acupuncture for what could otherwise cost him hundreds of dollars per visit.

Chanda Hinton-Leichtle, the Chanda Plan founder and executive director, says 95 percent of the Foundation’s clients are on Medicaid and are funded through charity. All must have long-term disabilities that result from spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida and traumatic brain injury. They must also use a manual or power chair 100 percent of the time to qualify for the program.

For the past two years, Moton has received free treatment through philanthropic funds from the Foundation. Soon he will start being covered under Colorado’s Medicaid Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Waiver. The Foundation will be one of two Medicaid SCI-designated providers in the state starting in May.

“The body needs to have movement whether you’re paralyzed or not,” says Hinton-Leichtle, who started the Chanda Plan Foundation in 2005 after she experienced significant health improvements through the use of integrative therapies for symptoms caused by a spinal cord injury.  She has been paralyzed below the chest since age 9, when an accidental shooting severed her spinal cord. 

“Pressure sores, bladder and bowel dysfunction, horrible bone density. We’re causing more issues to individuals than having paralysis if we don’t give them options for movement through integrative therapy. It’s also about having them believe disability and wellness can co-exist,” she says.

In 2009, Hinton-Leichtle helped state lawmakers create the SCI waiver, which became part of a pilot project to evaluate the effects of integrative therapy for people with spinal cord injuries. Currently Medicaid and Medicare in most states do not cover any integrative therapies. That initial program limited participants to 67 people per year, but with so many people on the waiting list for it, the Center approved an extension for the waivers through 2020 and expanded the number of participants to 120.

Hinton-Leichtle says the foundation, which also provides services to participants remotely, served 157 people through its philanthropic donor funding in 2015.

“It’s not just one treatment. It means we served 157 individuals in an intensive weekly service program to make a difference in their lives,” she says.

In March, the Daniels Fund and Colorado Health Foundation awarded $700,000 in grants to help the Chanda Plan Foundation build a first-of-its-kind medical center nearby in Lakewood that is slated to be 6,000 square feet and also include a primary care physician, nutrition and mental health counseling and adaptive yoga when completed.

Moton says he is looking forward to trying yoga and other new offerings at the center when it opens.